Correction: in our recent email alert we rightly associated Anchorage property taxpayers with proposed bonded indebtedness but inadvertently associated property taxpayers with a proposed liquor tax.  -dh

Lest We Forget: Alaska Once Created Two Decades Of Investment/Tax/Economic/Social Stability

Commentary by

Dave Harbour


Thirty-Eight years ago today, Alaska created what was to be two decades of “quasi”-fiscal stability.  We say, “quasi” because even in the wake of “reform”, politicians would continuously be seeking more revenue.

But let us begin the story this way.  1980-81 was an era when the Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) was transporting over 2 million barrels per day of Prudhoe Bay crude oil to the West Coast.  Alaska’s economy was breaking records and lawmakers almost couldn’t spend money fast enough.  The recent 70s decade had seen politicians raise oil taxes almost annually.  The biggest predatory tax attack occurred in 1979 with passage of a discriminatory (i.e. “separate accounting”) oil and gas corporate income tax.

Even with the state’s huge wealth, there were signs of, “trouble in River City”.  A great “Alaska lands” debate would result in passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) that transformed the Arctic National Wildlife “Range” into a “Refuge”.  The oil companies had sued the state over its discriminatory tax attack.  Citizens were concerned about reliance on oil for over 90% of their government’s operating budget.  Politicians were frightened that their overreaching, oil tax efforts could produce a losing court case and a court order to return to producers billions of dollars in refunds, and perhaps penalties.  Fairbanks Libertarian Dick Randolph’s calls for a personal income tax repeal — together with a massive, Anchorage-based grass roots campaign led by People Against Income Tax, Common Sense for Alaska, Resource Development Council for Alaska, the new Alaska Support Industry Alliance and other community and business organizations — also provided political incentives for the tax reform.  Politicians of the day told your publisher (i.e. then ARCO’s Government Affairs Director) that they received more citizen mail on this tax reform package than on any other issue in the young state’s history.

It was therefore somewhat ironic that political pressure and fear — not a more noble desire to achieve fiscal stability — provided incentive for the press conference announcing a grand bargain.  The bargain was that both the personal income tax and oil and gas corporate income tax had been repealed.  Those repeals, together with an increase in the oil severance tax thus produced a “fair share” of oil revenue to the state and elimination of an unnecessary personal income tax on constituents.

Alaska Governor Jay Hammond. Northern Gas Pipelines photo by Dave Harbour

For those who hunger for the ‘good old days’, listen to our own live recording of this unique press conference.  On March 18, 1981 Governor Jay Hammond and virtually all of the House and Senate Republican and Democrat leadership gathered together to announce they had arrived at an equitable split of Prudhoe Bay wealth among the Industry, State government and Federal government interests (i.e. though some were a little cautious, a little less than enthusiastic as you will hear).  Scroll down to listen below or click here.”

The decade of the 80s soon turned sour.  Common Sense for Alaska (Reference 1 & 2), organized leadership forums bringing public attention to the dangers of imprudent fiscal policies.

Deregulation of natural gas by the federal government resulted in a rising supply and lower prices, thus rendering infeasible a planned AlCan Highway gas pipeline project designed to transport the North Slope gas.  A “Maple Leaf” gas pipeline from the nearby Mackenzie Delta area, likewise faltered. 

Though rumblings of new oil taxes — including gas reserves taxes and TAPS haul road taxes — occasionally surfaced, none represented a serious erosion of Alaska’s new investment climate stability….even as the price of a barrel of oil flirted with single digits.    After all, Prudhoe Bay production was at its zenith.  As the field continued to mature, the state recalculated a change in policy slightly affecting an economic limit factor in calculating oil severance taxes, resulting in an expected shifting of some revenue from producers to the state.  But the investment climate would recover with recovering prices in the next decade.

Dr. Scott Goldsmith, University of Alaska – Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER). Goldsmith has been the major author of studies and recommendations for Alaska’s economic stability over the years. NGP stock photo by Dave Harbour

During the 90s the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research began to warn policy makers to become less dependent on oil revenue to fund Alaska’s operating budget due to both price volatility and diminishing production.  Economist Scott Goldsmith referred to urgently required tax and spend reform policies as a “safe landing”, a gentle way — if begun early enough — to create a sustainable fiscal regime for the 49th state.  Common Sense for Alaska successfully championed passage of a Constitutional limitation on government spending but by the time it weathered the juggernaut of legislative changes, it would end up doing little or nothing to constrain the growth of Alaska’s huge and unsustainable government superstructure.

As prices began to recover in the 90s both republican and democrat policy makers found it impossible to exercise the restraint necessary to achieve ISER’s wise counsel to create “soft landing” for fiscal policy.  By the early to mid 2000s, politicians were replacing then increasing the easily calculated 15% severance tax with a complex and progressive production (i.e. severance) tax.  It was a stake in the heart of Alaska’s energy investment climate for a decade, until it was reformed.

Here is an Alaska Department of Revenue “Historical Overview” of production taxes for readers’ reference.

The first decade of the Millennium was fraught with oil and gas tax instability, lower production and operating budgets subsidized with diminishing savings.

Governor Bill Walker. Northern Gas Pipelines photo by Dave Harbour

In the current, second decade, policy makers under pressure slightly improved investor confidence with production tax reform which did create an opening for more exploration and development with mixed results.  On the one hand, ConocoPhillips continued hard-won but successful development in the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska.  That effort — along with other ANS efficiencies including extended reach lateral drilling — began to significantly improve throughput of TAPS.  On the other hand, Alaska’s government failed to provide some producers with expected tax credit payments in a timely way.  Adding fuel to the fire of public controversy, former governor Bill Walker sought to use a portion of Annual Permanent Fund Dividends to residents to subsidize the operating budget, while spending hundreds of millions in an effort to socialize Alaska’s infeasible natural gas transportation project.

…which brings us to today.

Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy. Northern Gas Pipelines photo by Dave Harbour

New Governor Michael Dunleavy hopes to create a new era of fiscal stability and budget sustainability.  Among other remedies, he has proposed tax reform, spending reform, and Permanent Fund Dividend reform.  To achieve fiscal certainty, the first two are essential but have armies of political enemies.  The latter, has large support but does not create overall fiscal certainty.  Since the issues are all severable, we fear the first two will fail and the latter will succeed leaving the state sinking one year deeper into fiscal quicksand.

We hope we are wrong and urge our Alaska readers to redouble efforts to support the Governor’s efforts to once again signal to the world that, “Alaska is open for business”.

EndNote: One recalls that two decades of fiscal certainty and investor confidence began in 1981 with non-severable legislation combining Personal Income Tax Repeal with Oil & Gas Corporate Income Tax repeal & a Severance Tax increase from 12 1/4% to 15%.  It was a grand bargain that didn’t make everyone ecstatic but did produce a workable compromise; two decades of relative, fiscal peace.  Today’s challenge is more daunting.  TAPS throughput is down.  Energy prices are stuck midway between recent lows and highs.  Finally, taxing/spending/PFD Dividend reforms require Constitutional amendments while the 1981 tax reforms were more easily achieved with statutory changes. 

Even facing such a daunting challenge we have hope, for while Alaska’s own elected leaders created the fiscal Gordian knot vexing their constituents, we also know that what man has done can be redone if not undone, however painful the redoing might be. 

Yes, “We cry for thee, Alaska, though we will eternally hope well for thee.” 


Rule of Law In Alaska Under Threat

Several years ago we warned that whether one likes a natural resource project or not is immaterial.  What is material is the rule of law.   We were and continued to be concerned when powerful interests seek to end-run due process.  In the case of the Pebble Project noted in the link, significant Obama Administration effort was focused on subverting lawful, due process in the Pebble case.  (The “Pebble” issue arises here since one of the appointee’s previous employers was that project).

Application of the rule of law is reinforced when citizens participate responsibly in the due process of permitting, public input and potential appeal.  Smooth functioning of due process should not be abused by preemptive agency or legislative roadblocks, emotional outbreaks, slander, vulgarity, or unlawful acts such as influence peddling, bribery or blackmail.

Jason Brune. NGP Photo by Dave Harbour

Friday we testified (Video, 22:59) at an Alaska House of Representatives Resources Committee hearing regarding the confirmation of Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner-designee Jason Brune, an unusually well qualified candidate.

We were shocked to observe an Army of well organized witnesses primarily from coastal villages, many using the most uncivil, emotional, non-factual, personal attacks on the integrity and qualifications on this competent, qualified citizen.

With almost a hundred witnesses cued up during the day, only a half dozen spoke in logical, factual terms about Brune’s actual qualifications and suitability for confirmation.  Language of many of the rest resembled the outpouring of a 19th Century lynch mob.  We also observe that most of that group represented constituencies — some calm, respectful and well-intended — associated with tourism, commercial fishing and environmental pursuits, areas requiring vast subsidies to exist … from a State Operating Budget mostly dependent on oil, gas and mining production.  Since many of the most vocal and angry of that group relied on the same “talking points”, it seemed to us that the hearing amounted to an “event” coordinated by special interests.

We hope policy makers will take such testimony in stride and consider the source as they separate within the public record, the factual wheat from the unreliable chaff.  Brune has a biological and environmental education and background enhanced with actual experience in mining and Alaska Native natural resource management.  He has always served previous employers with both integrity and distinction.  There is no reason to believe he will not faithfully, objectively and professionally oversee the DEC functions with which he has been entrusted.  (Our testimony)

Commissioner-designee Brune is a champion of the Rule of Law and should be confirmed.